Nothing is more frustrating for a football fan (especially a math/logic centered one) than to see coaches blow basic strategy elements to the game, many of which are black and white. I can be forgiving on a lot. As a 100-and-nothing-pound Mathlete growing up, I knew I wouldn’t do any better out there on the field but I knew a lot of times I could do better at some of the basic decision making and strategy. Coaches learn a lot about football as they progress through careers, but game-theory type strategy seems to be a common blind spot for many coaches to gain the hidden advantage. Luckily Michigan has a coach that had a pretty sharp first year in this regard, hopefully all the other Zookers out there don’t read this (yeah right) and catch up.
Some of what follows will be backed with hard data from my database, other will be solid and based on strong logic without play data backing (I don’t track timeouts in my database) and some will be things unprovable but backed by 30 years of watching the game from a different vantage point.
Issue 1: How to use your timeouts when you are trailing
Always take your timeouts on defense if there are less than 2-3 minutes left, you are trailing and the opponent is running out the full play clock.
Announcers always like to have have those final timeouts in your pocket for that last drive or to get the kicker out there one last time. Although that is a good to have, saving the time up front is a much better option for end game strategy. If your opponent is working to run out the clock, every timeout you take saves you about 38 seconds. On offense, if you have a reasonably efficient 2 minute offense, each timeout is probably worth 10-15 seconds. One timeout on defense is as valuable as 2-3 on offense. The other advantage you have on offense is you are in control of the play, you can restrict your plays to passing, sidelines and first down distance plays that assist in stopping the clock.
A final note on defensive timeouts, never take them immediately after the offense gains a first down. The clock stops to reset the ball and you will have three more opportunities to stop it later. Taking it after the first down is good for about 25 seconds, waiting will give you nearly 15 seconds more savings.
Issue 2: Should you ever use them when you are ahead
If the opponent is in the red zone pressing for a tying or go-ahead score, don’t be afraid to use your timeouts to ensure a chance to retake the lead.
Once the opponent is inside the 20 (and definitely inside the 10) in the final two minutes, losing the lead is a near certainty (especially if a field goal will do the job). If the opponent is drained or nearly drained of timeouts, all the better for you to use yours. They won’t be able to stop you from taking a knee if you do get a stop and you will have more time to come back if they do score on you.
The flip side is also true. Even if you are trailing but driving, if the opponent is already in a position to run out the clock if you are stopped, first priority is obviously scoring, but second should be not rushing to be faster because the goal is to make your drive the last drive. If it fails the game is over either way, if it succeeds you want to minimize the opponent's chance to score. Even if you started as a two-minute offense, if you get to the red zone fast enough it can make sense to slow down a bit. It will likely be your last possession no matter what, any time you are saving is for them and not you.
Note, this situation also applies to a tie game.
Issue 3: How to use your timeouts when you are tied
Tread lightly after first and second down but pull the trigger fast after third down.
As Bret Bielema and Bob Stoops found out this year, you have to be very careful on this one. Taking one after first down is the riskiest. At least Bielema took his with a Sparty offense facing a 2nd and 20. With two more plays left a lot can happen, unless the opponent is backed up deep in their own territory, it’s best to not get greedy after first down.
After second down can still be a bit risky, but at this point you have a much better idea on what the opponent is faced with and what their strategy is. The worse shape and more conservative the opponent is, the more a timeout makes sense.
After third down in a tied game is usually a straightforward decision. Unless their is a chance the other team will attempt a fourth down conversion, use the timeout right away, it’s your last chance to maximize the value of that timeout.
Issue 4: How soon can you take a knee and run out the clock?
Depends on your opponent timeouts,
0 left: 2 minutes and 6 seconds
1 left: 1 minute and 24
2 left: 46 seconds
3 left: 8 seconds
If there are a couple more seconds than this it gets dicey. If you lead by more than 2 points, you can always have your quarterback sprint backwards and run around to burn some time and take a safety if need be.
2 Point Conversions
Rule #1 of 2 point conversions is don’t even think about them until the fourth quarter. No exceptions. Do not chase points, there is too much variability left in the game to give up a point to get to a “nice number” or even worse to “get back” a point from a missed/blocked/botched PAT. Just don’t do it.
Two point conversion rates are hard to get a true number on. The best numbers I can get is somewhere between 40-45% success. This is backed by a limited sample on actual two point conversions and verified by 43% success on 3rd or 4th and goal from the 3.
Situations to go for 2 any time in the fourth quarter (margin before TD is scored):
Down 22: Prior to scoring this you were down 22, 3 touchdown, and 4 PAT points. That can come as 1/1/2 or 0/2/2. Going for two here is the only way to get even but still leave the door open. Make it and its 14, miss and it’s still a two possession game.
Down 15: In the fourth quarter possessions are limited. Forcing the decision early gives you the information on whether its a one or two possession game. Waiting till the second TD can leave you with a false sense that you are playing a one possession game when you have a less than 50% of hitting the 2 point conversion and may be out of time. Going for it after the first score allows you to make more educated timeout, on-side and fourth down decisions. Waiting may make you feel better about it still be a one possession game, but as Brian has said, it’s only a 40% chance of being a one possession game.
Down 14: This is the genius one. Fail and you still have a chance to get it back on the second TD, just as if you kicked it like a risk-averse NFL coach. But if you make it, you are not playing for overtime but the win. Depending on the 2 point conversion odds, this increases your chances of winning by 10-30% (not percentage points, you were down 2 TD in the fourth quarter, your odds are never great). At a 43% success rate this strategy is a 14% improvement of odds. With a good offense at 50% conversion you jump all the way to 29% improvement by going for 2 on the first TD.
Only if there are 2 or fewer possessions left for each team
Down 8, Down 5, Down 1 and Up 6: Same as above, with 3+ possessions left this is probably a no go but with a possession or two each to go. It’s now a one possession game and with very many possessions left there is too much that can happen to risk giving up the point too early.
Only if your opponent has one possession left
Down 2: You hear there’s no difference between 4 and 6 but there is if there are multiple possessions left. Field goals can really mess with this situation; take the point unless the opponent only has one shot left, in which case you might get a little insurance for a missed PAT if you can make yours. Even in this situation I don’t condone going for 2 when you were down 12 to make the deficit 4 or 6. Chances are your opponent is going to be conservative and a field goal is probably the best case scenario for them. Don’t let a FG end your game with an unnecessary risk.
Wanted to break things up a with a little Mgoblog favorite, a chart.
Outcomes from first possession of overtime period.
Fail to score
Touchdown + PAT
This data comes from every overtime period from 2007-2011. What you don’t see here is the strong preference this overtime method has for winning the coin flip. There is a lot of talk about the NFL and its 59-60% advantage for the coin flip winner, but in college the coin flip winner holds a solid 56% advantage for getting to go second and knowing what you have to do.
A touchdown on the first possession puts you in great shape. A field goal attempt is OK if necessary, but you better be confident you can make it. Although there is obviously a greater chance of winning with a TD versus a field goal, the odds don’t support a highly aggressive fourth down strategy, especially inside the 10. Even though the temptation is higher close to the goal line, for most teams going for it on 4th and 1 or 2 make sense. Anything beyond that and the best bet is to give the ball to the kicker. Now a great offense or questionable kicking game quickly changes the calculus, but in close, the odds say kick it. Where it is a bit more interesting is on the first set of downs in the game. The odds actually favor a more aggressive 4th down strategy on 4 and 5 or less from the 16-20 on the first set of downs. At this range most college kickers are good but far from automatic; an aggressive play here can pay out.
Another hotly debated overtime question is going for 2 to win after the other team has scored and kicked. 10 out of 44 teams faced with this proposition have gone for it, their record is 4-6, about in line with the 40-45% 2 point conversion expectation. This would seem like a losing proposition but at 45% the odds would be in line with the chances in the next OT since you have to be on offense first. Not really a clear cut answer here, but either way can be justified and the presence of a great offense from either team can quickly make the decision to go for 2 a good one.
Surprise On-Sides Kicks
Do them more.
OK you need more than that? Advanced NFL stats ran the numbers for the NFL and found that success rates for onside kicks are 20% when expected and 60% when not expected. I found a similar spread for college. Out of 663 expected onside kicks in my database, 23% were recovered by the kicking team. Only 146 (about 1 per week) surprise onsides where tried but 64% of those were recovered. The break-even success rate needed for a surprise onside kick is 46%, the market for surprise on-side kicks is definitely undervalued.
Punting In Opponent Territory
One of the many reasons that punting in opponent territory is dumb is that it is usually couched on the assumption that “we’ll pin them deep.” There are two key problems with this assumption. The first is that 36% of punts from opponent territory result in a touchback or never reach the 20, and that’s before any returns are factored in. The second is that it’s pretty tough to actually down it close to the end zone, and unless you are at the 1 or 2, there is no special advantage.
As discussed previously, it is in an offense’s best interest to go super conservative at the 1 or 2. Outside of that it is nearly business as usual. There is only an 8% chance a punt from the opponent's territory is downed at the 1 or 2. It’s over four times more likely to not even pin an opponent inside the 20 than it is to force the offense’s hand by pinning them at the 1 or 2 yard line.
Another problem with an opponent territory punt is that it’s tough to get an even exchange. Punting into the short side of the field limits the best case scenario and assuming you can force a punt from the opponent, gives them a lot of positive variance opportunity. A long bounce going in brings the ball out to the 20, a long bounce kicking out can quickly turn into a 60-yard punt and a total flip of field position.
And of course, you give up a great scoring opportunity punting in opponent territory.
Red Zone Play-Calling
On a first down Red Zone play, teams are more likely to score if it’s a run than a pass if they are at the 8 yard line or closer. Anything between the 9 and the 20 favors a pass on first down. That doesn’t mean that 100% pass is the optimal strategy, just that the play calling should favor the pass (or run inside the 9). For goal to go situations after first down, second down is the ultimate OC’s choice. From anywhere 10 and in on second and goal running and passing have nearly identical touchdown percents. On third and goal, the run still holds up strongly. A called run is more likely to score a TD on anything from the 6 and in than a pass, which owns 7 and up. Again, not saying the strategy should be 100%, but there is real value to favoring the run inside the 7.
Never take a touchback on a kickoff you don’t have to. The expected starting field position on a return from 9 yards deep is still the 21, plus the opportunity for a big play easily offsets the times when you start from the 10-15, which isn’t a big cost for the opportunity.
In a trash tornado game, the biggest value for the wind goes to the team that has it in the first and third quarters, not the fourth. When the wind is strong it usually takes a possession or two for the field position to level back out. Those possessions occur at the beginning of the 2nd and 4th quarters, essentially giving the team with early field position the wind for about 2/3 of the game.
No numbers on this one but unless it's fourth down, stretching out the football is an extremely dumb move. At the goal line you can make a case for it if its 2nd or 3rd down, but there are very few situations where an incremental yard (nearly worthless) can be offset by the fumble risk of stretching the ball out.
Anything I may have missed here that you want to see, hit me up on twitter or in the comments and I’ll find a spot to address in a future article. I intentionally skipped fourth down decision making for this article. It’s too big of a topic. I previously wrote about it here and have an update to the article coming sometime this offseason.
May your holidays be filled with surprise on-side kicks, fourth down attempts and three wise timeouts.